A clas­sic gui­tar ‘war’ am­pli­fied

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two - By Scott Galupo

Chuck Kloster­man, the om­niv­o­rous pop-cul­ture es­say­ist, once as­serted with a more or less straight face that the 1980s ri­valry be­tween the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers and the Bos­ton Celtics “rep­re­sents ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing.”

“There is no re­la­tion­ship that isn’t a Celtics-Lak­ers re­la­tion­ship,” he wrote. “It emerges from noth­ing­ness to de­sign na­ture. “

Call it an over­strained metaphor — it is — but Mr. Kloster­man was right about the op­po­si­tional or­der of things: mat­ter and an­ti­mat­ter; Bea­tles and Stones; Coke and Pepsi; PCs and Macs; Hil­lary and Obama.

With his fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­men­tary “Solid­bod­ies: The 50 Year Gui­tar War,” de­but writer-di­rec­tor Guy Horn­buckle has added the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween gui­tar man­u­fac­tur­ers Gib­son and Fender to the ledger of great bi­nary ri­val­ries.

In fact, says Mr. Horn­buckle, a Tu­pelo, Miss., broad­cast jour­nal­ist, he had in the back of his mind a U.S.Soviet Union metaphor and nearly ti­tled the film “Gui­tar Cold War.”

“It just so hap­pens that the dates are pretty close to the other Cold War,” he says. “This one just hasn’t been re­solved yet.”

“Solid­bod­ies,” just out on DVD, re­counts the his­tory of two crit­i­cally im­por­tant elec­tric gui­tars — the Fender Stra­to­caster and the Gib­son Les Paul — that shaped the sound of early rock ‘n’ roll mu­sic and in­di­rectly helped trans­form the face of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture.

“We could pull ad­jec­tives out of the air for hours,” says Mr. Horn­buckle, 54.

The sound of the Fender Start is twangy and per­cus­sive. The Les Paul is beefy and warm.

While it’s el­e­gant in its way, the Start — a marvel of mass-mar­ket man­u­fac­tur­ing — was de­signed pri­mar­ily for use-and-abuse func­tion­al­ity. The heav­ier, more or­nate Les Paul com­manded ten­der-lov­ing re- spect. (Jimi Hen­drix did not burn or bite a Les Paul, notes a “Solid­bod­ies” talk­ing head.)

In a his­tory rich with ironies, both the Stra­to­caster and the Les Paul pre­dated by sev­eral years the rock sound with which they would be­come syn­ony­mous.

Leo Fender (1909-91) who ran a ra­dio re­pair shop and could nei­ther play nor tune a gui­tar, pitched his new de­sign (the Esquire, mod­i­fied to be­come the Tele­caster, was in­tro­duced in 1950) to West­ern-swing and coun­try play­ers.

Up to that point, the hollow-body elec­tric gui­tar was used for mar­ginal rhyth­mic ac­com­pa­ni­ment in jazz, big-band and dance bands: It didn’t have the juice to cut through large, loud, horn-based en­sem­bles.

(It was no co­in­ci­dence that early elec­tric-gui­tar pi­o­neers such as Char­lie Chris­tian es­sen­tially played mu­si­cal lines that were tan­ta­mount to horn so­los — the gui­tars of the 1930s never could have con­veyed the chunkier power chords and ex­pres­sive, sus­tained note-bend­ing later as­so­ci­ated with rock mu­sic.)

But the Stra­to­caster, in­tro­duced in 1954, could “cut off your head,” says Texas-based blues-rock gui­tarist Wes Jeans, who is among the sound-and-style demon­stra­tors who spared Mr. Horn­buckle the mil­lions of dol­lars it would have cost to li­cense hit mu­sic for “Solid­bod­ies.”

The more es­tab­lished, staid Gib­son, mean­while, had been man­u­fac­tur­ing stringed in­stru­ments for decades. The Kala­ma­zoo, Mich.based com­pany wasn’t so much slow to catch on to the in­no­va­tion of the Fender Tele and Start; it con­sid­ered such gui­tars an ef­fron­tery to tra­di­tion.

Yet by 1952, Gib­son re­lented and in­tro­duced a solid-body elec­tric gui­tar of its own with the im­print of Mr. Paul, whose ac­com­plished chops as a jazz-pop in­stru­men­tal­ist would be over­shad­owed by his ge­nius for de­sign and in­ven­tion. (The 92-yearold still per­forms on many Mon­day nights at a Man­hat­tan night­club.)

From thence the ri­valry grew: In the hands and on the album cov­ers of stars in­clud­ing Buddy Holly and bands such as the Ven­tures, Fender can­nily ap­pealed not just to play­ers, but to the vast mar­ket of teenagers as an em­blem of cool­ness; it sold Strats in the same bright sheen as pop­u­lar au­to­mo­biles.

Gib­son set the grain of its curly maple Les Pauls aflame with a re­do­r­ange “sun­burst” that con­vinced ad­mir­ers that the gui­tar was in some tonal sense “alive.”

Nearly 60 years later, the Stra­to­caster and the Les Paul still dom­i­nate the elec­tric-gui­tar land­scape and, as a tes­ta­ment to their sta­tus as eter­nal ar­ti­sanal ver­i­ties, they haven’t changed all that much — for the sim­ple rea­son that gui­tar play­ers adamantly don’t want changes.

Mr. Horn­buckle doesn’t over­state the Fender-Gib­son ri­valry. (I don’t want to, ei­ther [-] as an ama­teur player, I sim­ply threw up my hands and bought both.) Nev­er­the­less, he does note that “most — not all — of the ex­em­plary play­ers we know or love tend to be very ded­i­cated to one or the other.”

Eric Clap­ton, for ex­am­ple, started as a Gib­son man, but he has been an al­most exclusive devo­tee of the Stra­to­caster since his post-Cream solo ca­reer be­gan in 1970. Con­versely, in the band’s ear­li­est television clips, Led Zep­pelin’s Jimmy Page was seen with a psy­che­delic-col­ored Tele­caster. He even­tu­ally set­tled on a 1959 Les Paul.

The late Mr. Hen­drix and Ste­vie Ray Vaughn were both defini­tively as­so­ci­ated with the Start, while such out­fits as the All­man Brothers Band and ZZ Top re­lied pri­mar­ily on Gib­sons.

As it is with pol­i­tics and bas­ket­ball, so it is, ap­par­ently, with gui­tars. There is some­thing in the hu­man psy­che that turns pref­er­ence into exclusive loy­alty.

“It’s our ten­dency,” Mr. Horn­buckle says. “We do want to be on one side or the other.

“And if we’re on the right side, then there has to be a wrong side.”

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